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Municipal Government

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MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT, the power vested in the officials of an in corporated town or city to regulate the affairs of the municipality with a limited degree of freedom from interference from the centralized government of the State or nation. Municipal governments were first granted this measure of auton omy under the Roman Empire, especial ly in the outlying colonies, where the interference of the imperial governor was curtailed in matters pertaining exclusively to local affairs. When the Franks conquered Italy and France, the cities were allowed to retain a large measure of this autonomy, as was not ably the case in Cologne, where, up to the time of the first French Revolution, the two chief magistrates still retained the titles of "consuls." Other cities, such as Venice, Florence, and Hamburg, at tained complete independence, and would enter into offensive and defensive alli ances with foreign governments. In Eng land charters were first granted to the municipalities, or burghs, by the Nor mans. Here, as in all European countries during the Middle Ages, it was the poli cies of the kings to grant greater freedom to the cities, to offset the growing power of the feudal lords. The officials, how ever, were not chosen by popular suffrage, but by the wealthier citizens, the mer chants, and by the guilds, which were organizations of traders and crafts workers. These crafts organizations were especially powerful in Scotland. It was not till the early part of last century that a cry for electoral re form arose, and with it a demand for a broader suffrage in the elec tion of municipal officials. An Act of Parliament was then passed confer ring the suffrage on the citizens in gen eral, though limited to those owning a certain amount of property.

In the United States municipal auton omy has a peculiar origin of its own; in the "township meeting" of the New England States, as a unit of democratic control. Borrowing the principle and the form from their church organization, in which every member had the right of suffrage, the early citizens of New Eng land organized the "township" govern ment on the same basis, and thus estab lished an institution that has had a very far-reaching influence in all democratic forms of government. It is indeed claimed that the Russian soviet, the unit of organization of the Bolshevist Govern ment of Russia, was directly patterned after the old New England township.

The New England townships, however, while based on the right of full autonomy in local affairs, wherein they do not encroach on the authority of the State, are subservient to the State government in all matters under the jurisdiction of the State Throughout the whole of the United States municipal government is based on the theory that the State supersedes the city in authority, and that the city gov ernment derives its authority from the State, rather than directly from its citizens. As a result of this centraliza

tion of power there has been much abuse. As an instance, while the city of New York has invariably been Democratic in its party affiliations, the State govern.. ment quite as invariably is controlled by the Republican politicians in the rural sections of the State. Thus Republican policies and appointees were forced upon a large metropolis with interests different from those of other sections of the State, and with problems of its own.

As a result of this condition, obtaining in all parts of the country, there has arisen a strong movement for municipal home rule, the aim of which is to secure for the larger towns and cities a larger degree of autonomy, based on special charter. Specifically the demand has been for the right of the citizens to pass ordinances, or laws, regulating matters pertaining solely to the life of the city. Local control of the police force is one of the points most emphasized. The pioneer of this movement was Prof. Frank J. Goodnow, who has written considerably on this subject.

Many of the States of the Union have responded to this demand in varying degree. The first State to grant its municipalities the right to frame their own charters was Missouri, where the necessary amendments of the State con stitution were passed as far back as 1875. Other States have followed in this order: California, 1879; Washington, 1889; New York, 1894; Minnesota, 1896; Oklahoma, 1907; Michigan, 1908; Ari zona, 1912; Ohio, 1912; Nebraska, 1912; Texas, 1912.

While based on more equitable prin ciples, the granting of a broader home rule for municipalities has had one evil result in the greater amount of corrup tion which has developed in the govern ments of those cities which have been granted the right to frame their own charters. The notorious "muckraking" articles which were published in prom inent magazines during several years, beginning with 1903, exposing the cor ruption of municipal politics in some of the largest cities of the country, centered public attention on this evil.

The opportunity for corruption lay in the fact that the heads of the various departments of city government were appointed by the mayor, and were there fore not directly responsible to the elec torate.

To correct the evil, reform movements arose in many of the larger cities and a still greater number of the smaller towns and cities, which put into effect a new form of municipal government, known as the commission form of govern ment. By this method the city is gov erned by a small group, or commission, sometimes numbering only five men, each of whom is elected directly by the voters, and each of whom is responsible for a certain department of the city administration. The office of mayor is completely eliminated. In 1920 over seventy American municipalities had adopted this form of administration.